Pan-round-neck tradition in UK carnivals

This article presents an account of the pan-round-neck tradition in UK carnivals based on the views of the supporters of this art form. It focuses largely on the Notting Hill carnival, and the experiences of young people who are themselves pan players in Nostalgia Steelband. The performers account a pattern of the collective experiences of past and present practices and the journey this traditional pan-round-neck (referred to as ‘pan-round’neck’ in Trinidad) steelband has made. The story is hardly new, but it provides important further evidence of the contribution that this genre makes – through ethnographic narrative – to the carnival culture.

Introduction; ‘Pan-round-neck’:

The replacement of the traditional tamboo bamboo and other percussion instruments by steelpans in Trinidad carnivals during the 1940s was due in part to the durability and mobility of the instruments. All steelpans, from a tenor (soprano) to a low base drum, were carried around the neck of the musician during the two-day carnival pageant. In the ensuing decades, as the repertoire expanded and new boundaries were explored, each specialised pan grew into multiple pans to accommodate the vast range of notes now demanded on the tuners. The steelband grew into an orchestra spanning more than 10 octaves from the tenor pan to the 6 and later 12 pan-base sets. By the late 1950s, the pan-round-neck* tradition gave way to a highly complex racking system to facilitate the ever increasing number of pans now played by each panist. This was later followed by movement to the ‘big truck’, now common place at carnivals globally. The outcome is not only a distancing of the musicians from the street participants but also the replacement of traditional steelpans by powerful sound systems; the latter being cheaper, simpler and louder and driven by commercial interest. However, the pan-round-neck tradition has doggedly survived the years outside Trinidad in relatively modest but discernible pockets in England, Switzerland, Germany and now spreading to the Far East.

*A steelpan cannot sit directly on the floor but must be suspended to prevent the sound being dampened. Hence the first steelband players carried their steelpans strapped around their necks. Nearly all current bands hang their steelpans on metal racks for performances. For events such as carnivals, they are carried on trucks or floats.

Since its inception Nostalgia Steelband has never deviated from its responsibility to persevere with this tradition; playing at many varied events throughout the UK and Europe, actively teaching and developing programmes in numerous schools and universities, helping to start up new steelbands, holding workshops to promote this art form and organising and participating in steelband conferences. In 2009, Nostalgia had a membership of over 50 steel pan players, representing the major cultures in Inner London. Information on dedicated pan-round-neck steelbands are poorly documented and difficult to delineate from ‘hybrid’, ‘single pan bands’ or even conventional steelbands.

Nostalgia and its Impact on ‘pan-round-neck’

Nostalgia Steelband’s roots date back to 1951 when its eminent founders, Sterling Betancourt and Russell Henderson arrived in England with 10 other members of the legendary TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) to play at the ‘Festival of Britain’. Following their return, Sterling and Russell stayed back in England and in 1952 made their first recording and then went on to form the ‘Russell Henderson Steelband’; the first home grown steelband in Britain. They played at numerous venues and appeared on radio and television. In 1963, they played for a Children’s Neighbourhood Carnival in London’s Notting Hill area and did so as a ‘pan-round-neck’ band. During the party, they drifted onto the streets of Notting Hill. Some spectators joined the procession while others gasped at this ‘audacious act’ which they assumed was a political demonstration. This was the birth of the world renowned Notting Hill carnival and some of the musicians who took part in this event went on to become famous bandleaders and arrangers of several new bands. The Russell Henderson band subsequently changed its name twice before the name ‘Nostalgia Steelband’ was proposed by Philmore Davidson in 1969.

For over 50 years, Nostalgia’s members have almost single-handedly promoted and maintained the pan-round-neck tradition in England despite the immense logistical problems. For example, the notes of each steelpan must be condensed onto a single pan for mobility while still retaining the high quality, purity, rich tones and colourful rhythms that are now expected of steelbands (Dennis 1971; Imbert 1977; Copeland 1995). The key element of pan-round-neck is the freedom and mobility given to the panists. This in turn enables pan playing to be more visible and accessible during street carnivals; breaking down the mystery and, allowing audiences to intermingle and freely participate. Nostalgia is therefore called upon to perform at a variety of events. For example, a poignant moment was the wild excitement created in the closing hours 1999, when the mobility of pan-round-neck steelband music enabled the huge enthusiastic crowds to join in a carnival procession along London’s Embankment. Nostalgia later went on to usher in the millennium at the opening of the celebrated Millennium Dome in Greenwich, London.

Sowing the Seeds of the ‘Pan-round-neck’ tradition in the UK

“Steelband music is today used all over the world to bring better cultural understanding and appreciation of music” (Wilkins and Rose 2006, Stuempfle, 1995). Since the majority of Nostalgia’s current members are school and university teachers, the band has been instrumental also in promoting many cultural and academic activities and organised the first steelband conference in Europe in 2006. Members have held on steadfastly to the ‘pan-round-neck’ tradition and have taken this method of playing into many London schools. One of the most successful of these is at the Performance Arts and Media Centre in west London. This is a joint venture driven by the author Marvin Barbe (with assistance from Olivia Raven and Ivan Gonzalez), and led to the establishment of The Paddington Arts Youth Steelband. Nostalgia provides the musical instruments and tuition to Paddington Arts voluntarily while the students in turn join Nostalgia for pan-round-neck performances. In another project, Christine Davis is leading the introduction of pan-round-neck at Hay Lane School (north London); a school with children with severe disabilities. Nostalgia Steelband has made an immense contribution to the musical life of this school by providing steelpans, tuition and joint performances.

A parallel study at Rokesly Infants School by Hazel Joseph has resulted in structured programmes that adhere closely to the Government’s Department of Education’s National Curriculum guidelines which are laid down in sequential ‘Key Stages’ (QCA 1999, 2000, McCalman, 2003). Olivia Raven is a full-time music teacher at the Chiswick Community School, but also teaches steelpan using a mixture of conventional and traditional steelpan methods from junior to senior levels. Progress has been rapid and concerts, assemblies and various events both within and outside the school stimulate interest and leads to pupils joining Nostalgia and other steelbands. Projects in south London by Adriana Flórez helps children to develop musicianship using the Kodaly method while Raul Gomez, a peripatetic music teacher (and arranger for Nostalgia) also runs a large number of steelpan workshops and community projects in several South London schools. As a formally trained drummer and percussionist his method of teaching has a strong rhythmic and harmonic focus. Many tutors including some of Nostalgia’s teachers, whose roots are not linked to the Caribbean, inevitable introduce their own cultural influences which help to shape the style and diversity of each steelband. Nostalgia members have tutored and made its steelpans available to the Shern Hall Youth Gospel Choir. The result has been a rapid development of Shern Hall Methodist Youth Steelband which performs as pan-round-neck’ both independently and together with Nostalgia

The development of established steelbands in London is therefore derived from the conscientious and pioneering work undertaken in various schools in London (La Rose and McCalman, 2003). This is an immense resource which this art form must nurture and strive to continually improve. Notwithstanding the many varied methods employed by tutors, steelbands continue to grow and are represented at all major cultural events in modern British life. In less than 60 years this incredible instrument has permeated the fabric of this society and is now an essential part of the cultural heritage of London.

Outside London Projects
eg: Pan-round-neck and a new Steelpan Academy in the heart of the British Midlands.

Diana Hancox, an invited speaker at Nostalgia’s Steelband conference in 2006, addressed the issue of ‘Increasing pan provision and its status in Schools and Communities’ (Hancox, 2006). One of the main outcomes of this conference was the need to develop a steelpan grading system on par with that established years ago for classical instruments and Nostalgia and Diana’s group began work on various join projects. Following several meetings, her colleague Jacqueline Roberts of SV2G focused on developing a grading system, while Diana began plans for the successful establishment of a Steelpan Academy. Nostalgia Steelband worked closely with the group to develop the Midlands pan-round-neck steelband, helping to preserve this part of pan history and culture outside London. The band is now playing out regularly on it own in the Midlands whilst also joining Nostalgia at Notting Hill Carnival. Projects such as this are being endorsed by Nostalgia to continue to promote the tradition of pan-round-neck. Making inroads into Bridgwater’s 400 year old Carnival.

Bridgwater’s West Country Carnival coincides with the British ‘Bonfire night’ and can be traced back to 1605. Like so many events around 5th November, it dates back to Robert Parsons’ and colleagues (Catholics, which included Guy Fawkes; the ‘guy’) attempt to blow up the Protestant British Houses of Parliament during the reign of James I. The original Bridgwater celebrations, which celebrated this failed attempt, consisted of a large bonfire in the Cornhill. A large wooden boat was built and over one hundred tar barrels were added together with any inflammable material to create a spectacular bonfire that could been seen for miles. Effigies or ‘guys’ representing the gunpowder plot instigators were added to the fire by local groups of people known as gangs. It is believed that these gangs started the trend towards a procession, as they paraded their guys towards the bonfire. Over the years the tradition continued and the annual celebrations became more and more elaborate, involving costumes and music, until the main feature of the event became a large carnival procession. Local people who dressed up and took part in the event were known as ‘Masqueraders’ or ‘”Features’ – terms still used today to describe the participants of the parade.

The key elements of this event has been retained and today the picturesque historic Somerset town of Bridgwater is home annually to a magnificent spectacle of lights, costumes and music and is regarded as the largest illuminated parade in the world. Despite the near zero temperatures at this time of the year, from 2003, Nostalgia Steelband players have been proudly carrying their pans around their necks through this three mile carnival route (which takes between 3-4 hours), cheered on by some 150,000 spectators who line both sides of the route. Many of these spectators attend in order to see this mesmerising display of colour, sound and movement but few would have seen or heard steelpan music before. The impact of this music, as the only steelband in the carnival, can be seen by the curious and excited expressions on their faces. So popular has this been that Nostalgia has been requested each year to join the carnival. To add to the electric atmosphere and build up for the evening parade, numerous events are showcased during the day.

4) From London to Europe; Pan-round-neck marches on: Developments in Germany and Switzerland.

i) Switzerland:

Even though Switzerland had such a small number of West Indians domiciled there up to the 1980s, it was one of the first European countries to have adopted, developed and vigorously promote steelpan and, now competes at the highest level, in competitions such as the ‘World Steelband Music Festival’ in Trinidad. With over 150 of steelpans listed on websites, the country is recognised internationally as one of the leading proponents of steelpan. Most are concentrated in Zürich, Aargau, Thurgau and Bern with the latter dating back to the early 1970s. Zürich’s two best known pan-round-neck bands, Sandflöö and Bollito Misto are nearly 30 years old. Sandflöö was invited by Nostalgia to play together at Notting Hill Carnival in 1987. In 1995 they jointly participated in the Panorama competition and delighted audiences and players alike with their dexterity and competence.

Nostalgia has had very fruitful collaborations with many Swiss steelbands particularly, Nostalgia’s former panist and arranger, Paul Francis, director of ‘Funland Serenaders’, Bern. Members have joined Nostalgia for many years to participate in the Notting Hill carnival and vice versa. Nostalgia has been privileged to have many proficient players, such as Junior Gill, Tamla Batra, Rudy Smith, Yves Maino and many others who join the band annually to participate in many activities in London.

Nostalgia has forged links with many Swiss steelbands through their former leader Sterling Betancourt sometimes with intriguing outcomes. For example, while playing with Sandflöö during the Zürich carnival of 1989, Elisabeth Pfafflin was inspired to form a new band, the ‘Jolly Jumpers’. The band was eventually dissolved in 1995, giving way to a new dynamic off-shoot, known as Sterling’s Angels. This took root in 1999 and under Karen Stark’s leadership, has been very successful up to the present time. The ‘Angels’ are a dedicated pan-round-neck band and have played alongside Nostalgia Steelband for many years in many carnivals particularly the Notting Hill Carnival. They have had a huge impact both in Switzerland and London and being a young all-girl band, have be inspirational for many young panists (Joseph, 2004).

With so many activities in Switzerland and their desire to maintain contact with developments in Trinidad, London and elsewhere, a global network was necessary. The Swiss took the initiative and before long,, the brain child of Monika Nicoletti-Tung began meeting these needs and soon became a house-hold name for steelband enthusiast around the globe. Monika, an accomplished steelpan player, has joined Nostalgia for over 20 years to play both in London and various parts of Europe. The success of this website and its many varied aspects was eloquently presented by Monika at the Steelpan Conference of 2006 (Nicoletti-Tung, 2006). Other websites such as,, etc follow.

ii) Germany – Dortmund and Hamburg

Germany has had carnivals for centuries in cities such as Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin etc but only relatively recently has steelband music begun to make an appearance in its cities. Among the pan-round-neck bands, the ‘Bäng Bäng Marchingband’, Pankultur, in Dortmund has been inspirational in its drive to make Dortmund, in Germany’s industrial heartland, the hub of this Caribbean art form. Other bands include Walking Steel a professional small pan-round-neck band that was founded in 2000. There are also two all girls pan-round-neck bands, ‘Ladypan’ that was formed in 2006 and the well known ‘Pans’ n Roses’ whose members have played with Pankultur and Nostalgia Steelband at the Notting Hill carnival for many years.

It is also here in Dortmund where the foundation of exhilarating and inspirational carnival is being carefully nurtured from its roots. PanKultur has been joining forces with Nostalgia since 2000 to play at Notting Hill carnival. In 2005, Nostalgia teamed up with PanKultur’s ‘Bäng Bäng Marchingband’ to participate in an interesting experiment that will one day grow into major street carnival. Up to 30 panists led a carnival parade into the market place and through the tiny cobbled streets of the city thereby taking this music into the heart of the city to very curious and astonished onlookers, most of whom had not seen a steelband before but, nevertheless, lined the streets and waved on the pan players. This was followed by a number of events including ‘Caribbean Night’ that featured a live pan-round-neck show and larger steel orchestras from various parts of Europe.